I Love the Smell of a Scam Crashing and Burning In the Morning


The Internet Age has been kind to scammers, who have used the toobz to find all sorts of hapless victims. But worms can turn. A little bit of Google-fu can turn you from potential victim to fraudbuster.

Case in point: Sai posted this awesome hunt for a fraudster on Google+. This shit’s like potato chips for me – I’m not satisfied after one little bite, I’ve gotta have the whole bag. So I clicked the link over to Popehat, and found myself vastly entertained for a half-hour. Upshot: if you receive an invoice from UST Development, US Telecom, or similar, research before you assume you owe. They’re a big ol’ scummy scam.

More importantly, however, this series of posts shows you how you can protect yourself by not assuming an invoice means someone in your company actually ordered a service just because there’s a slightly-odd invoice landing on your desk, and by doing a few Google searches to check things out. Don’t have a company? Doesn’t mean you won’t get scammed. Research anyone attempting to part you from your cash, or offering you unexpected money, or asking you weird questions.

I actually love this stuff. I think it goes back to the days when I used to watch all the cheesy 80s PI shows, and had a brief desire to become a private investigator. I gave up that dream early on, but still lap up true crime stories. One of my favorites was The Cuckoo’s Egg, which almost had me in college learning all I could of computers and networks just for the sheer joy of tracking cybercriminals, before I decided I should just focus on my writing instead. I’ve read Kevin Mitnick’s The Art of Deception, which opened my eyes to social engineering and has served me in good stead in my current job.

That book also helped me impress the pants off our fraud department.

Not long after I joined my current company, they threw a big job fair, where I got to meet really real FBI agents for the first time (they were super-nice and for some silly reason encouraged me to join the Bureau despite my lack of any useful degree, or indeed, any degree whatsoever. They have civilian positions, they said). And there was this booth, all tarted up with balloons and things, prize bags, clipboards, and a nice gentleman foisting a clipboard on me and saying all I had to do was fill out a survey to win.

I don’t remember what the banner said – something innocuous. They had a few books displayed. One of them was The Art of Deception.

“Sure,” I said, and took the clipboard. I looked at the questions. Mind you, I was already suspicious – with that book sitting there and these folks not saying what company or department within our own company they represented, I figured they were up to something. A glance down the list of questions confirmed it. Mother’s maiden name? Name of your first pet? Favorite color? And others, salted with a few questions that might distract you from what they were actually asking.

I laughed, handed back the clipboard without a single pen mark on the “survey,” and said, “No thanks.”

“Why not?” the squeaky-clean gentleman who’d handed me the survey asked.

“Because these questions are designed to get my passwords.”

He broke into a great big gleaming grin, and said, “You’re the only person who’s gotten that.” Which I found super-sad, considering all the classic signs of a fraud were there, combined with that bloody book. I’d thought it was blindingly obvious what was up.

The proprietors of the booth were from our fraud department, and I’ve still got the calculator in the shape of a cell phone they awarded me for being able to spot the bleedin’ obvious. If they’re ever hiring again over there, I might give it a go. There’s nothing I love better in my current job than getting a whiff o’ fraud, doing a bit of account research to confirm my suspicion, and then sending them a referral so they can do a proper investigation. That kind of thing leaves me glowing for days.

Wait, there was a moral to this story. It’s not just “look at me, I am awesome.” It’s this: scammers are clever, but you are more clever. You’ve got instincts you can hone. Pay attention to what people are taking from you when they’re offering you something for free. Are they asking the sorts of questions that often come up on those security questions thingies for password resets? Are they playing on your emotions, whether fear or compassion, a little too heavily in order to get you to give them money or answers? Is a bit of your brain screaming, “Hey, something’s not right!”?

If so, take the time to do some research, even if they’re all up in your face howling that you’ll miss the opportunity of a lifetime or kiddies will die if you don’t donate right now or threaten to set the law on you for not paying what they swear you owe them even though you can’t remember ever doing business with them. Decline to answer invasive questions. Use Google. Listen to that part of your brain that says, “This doesn’t pass the smell test,” but can’t quite articulate why.

And if some dude claims he needs you to send him money so he can send you a bunch of money from Nigeria, just say no. Unless, of course, you want to have a little fun fucking with the fucktards. In which case, go mad.